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Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Classic Film Review: Lifeboat (1944)

With a story by John Steinbeck and direction by Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat certainly boasted the cream of creative talent. The film tells the story of a group of survivors stranded in a lifeboat after their ship is torpedoed by the Germans. Both written and set during WWII it holds some typically standard views but is no less involving for that. The main tension within the film comes from the German sailor they pull on board. They need his help but is he trying to get in their way or get them out of the Atlantic alive?

The beauty of this film lies with the direction. Only Hitchcock could have made every scene, every angle of a lifeboat feel fresh and new. It sounds like a boring film with only the one setting but you quickly forget you're watching a single boat due to the ingenious angles and use of all available space. It never becomes boring and, because of the confined space, tension is rife.

There are a few notable characters. Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) is the first character we encounter, floating in the lifeboat on her own making a film of the man swimming towards her. When John Kovac (John Hodiak) boards he's unimpressed by her grandeur and, throughout the film, she loses her camera, typewriter, mink coat and beloved diamond bracelet. Also pulled aboard are Gus Smith (William Bendix), Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), Charles 'Ritt' Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), Mrs Higgins (Heather Angel) and her baby, Stanley 'Sparks' Garrett (Hume Cronyn) and George 'Joe' Spencer' (Canada Lee), along with their German associate, Willy (Walter Slezak). All have their own little arcs and some of them are more likeable than others.

Some of the early tension comes via Mrs Higgins. It's clear when she's pulled aboard that her baby isn't at all well and the scenes which follow that are traumatic. Equally as harrowing is the realisation that Gus has developed gangrene in his injured leg and that the only way to ensure he at least gets a chance at life is amputation. Gus is by far one of the most likeable characters, a man completely in love but worried that he'll lose her if he's at all injured. All of the characters contribute to the plot but, for me, it was Gus who held it together and what happens to him is horrific.

I won't reveal the various ups and downs (quite literally) of the lifeboat but I will say that this is a film which surprised me. Tallulah Bankhead was a better leading lady than I could have imagined and, while her chemistry with John Hodiak wasn't sizzling, it wasn't completely out of the realm of possibility. My favourite performance in this though was probably Hume Cronyn as Sparks. Along with Gus, Sparks provides some of the heart for the film and he's a likeable man you really want to survive.

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